Fully realized worlds – in praise of Tim Powers

endpaperssmallIt’s rare – in my advanced years – that I discover a new author that I’m completely enchanted by. But that’s just what has happened with author of ‘secret histories’ Tim Powers, after I got referred to his books by a Ron Gilbert article, and things spiraled out of control from there.

As Powers’ Wikipedia profile notes of his highest-profile book: “His 1988 novel On Stranger Tides served as inspiration for the Monkey Island franchise of video games and was optioned for adaptation into the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film.”

So Powers is in the weird situation of semi-secretly helping to inspire a classic game that’s more widely known for its Pirates of the Caribbean influence, as Gilbert himself admits. And then subsequently, Powers got his book’s plot ‘borrowed’ (with much $ attached) for a later version of the Johnny Depp movies based on the original Disney ride. If that makes _any_ sense…

Anyhow, On Stranger Tides is actually one of the Powers books I haven’t got around to yet – I know, sacrilege, it’s on its way! But I’ve sampled enough in succession to understand his secret sauce, which I would describe as follows:

  • Incredibly well thought-out and researched context for his books. For example, in Declare, which “evokes Lovecraftian horror and the work of John le Carré” at the same time (!), there’s a mass of factually researched info on – for example – the French Resistance in the Second World War.
  • But at the same time, there’s a lot of incredibly well-connected ‘join the dots’ between things that are real – and things that definitely aren’t – exemplified by the genius The Anubis Gates. Ideally, don’t read _any_ summary for one of his books before reading it, since the lurches between reality and fantasy are some of the best parts to savor.
  • Powers’ plots are extremely dense – not too bad if you’ve been reading a lot of George R.R. Martin, perhaps, but he produces a lot of ‘main’ characters (easily 10-15, in the case of Last Call), and expects you to keep an eye on them all. Yet the payoff is so much larger because of that.
  • He takes his time. Most of his novels take multiple years to write, and you can tell how carefully and closely his books are knit together. The ‘much more fan than this’ Powers mega-bibliography, Secret Histories, includes early drafts and sketches for some of his books that really exemplify this.
  • Most of all, as noted in the title of this blog, Powers produces ‘fully realized worlds’. He thinks so carefully about the lore and rules behind the universe he’s made, and he applies it so uniformly to the books he writes, that you believe that they could be true. For me – a non-fiction fan – 80% (extremely straight) reality and 20% (very unnerving) unreality makes for incredibly compelling reading.

If you’d like to get into Tim Powers’ books, I think it’s generally agreed that The Anubis Gates – all about Romantic poets and far more sinister forces – is the best starting point. It’s just a spectacular book, and an amazing showcase of his style, and I _really_ want this special edition of it.

And some of Powers’ more recent novels get more complex but arguably with a greater payoff – I particularly enjoyed Last Call, which summons the history of Las Vegas to clash with greater, scarier gambling, uh, powers.

Because you need some breathing room between books, I’m not all the way through Powers’ output yet – he has written 15 novels over 40 years (!), as well as a number of shorter limited-edition pieces and short story collections. So I may check back in and annotate this blog with additional comments along the way.

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